Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. This is his sixth novel, and a weighty one. It concerns a member of the Turkish society elite, Kemal, who has a comfortable position in his father’s firm, a devoted circle of friends and family – wealth, health and possessions – and is engaged to a lovely girl from the same social class. Kemal, however, meets a girl distantly related to him, a shop girl, with whom he starts to have an affair. The girl, Fusun, is aware of his impending marriage and yet gives herself wholeheartedly to this alliance. As Kemal grows increasingly infatuated with Fusun, he is torn between losing her and wrecking his engagement. Ironically, he ends up doing both. Fusun, broken-hearted at his engagement party, is taken away by her father to start a new life. Kemal attempts to continue with his fiancĂ©, but his pain and distraction effectively destroy her faith in him, and she breaks off the engagement.
What makes the novel monumental is that in each encounter with Fusun, in a family-owned vacant apartment, Kemal becomes attached to some objects that Fusun handled or had contact with. A glass, a spoon, a lost earring – all of these objects help Kemal to recreate her presence when she is not with him. When Fusun finally returns to Istanbul, to her parents’ house, she is married, yet Kemal is welcome in their home. Fusun’s husband, a young aspiring film maker (who has no inkling of their previous attachment) sees Kemal as a potential backer for his film. Years pass, with Kemal living out his love for Fusun as a nightly dinner guest and as an extra in family excursions out and around Istanbul. His collection of objects from Fusun’s environment, pocketed unobtrusively, swell to unimagined proportions, including 4.213 cigarette stubs. While the minutia of detailed objects is staggering, what the novel builds is its own “collection” of objects for our perusal. This includes the summer house where Kemal spun out the end of his tortured engagement, the gardens where he watches endless Turkish films with Fusun and her husband (doing film “research”),and the dining room where he surreptitiously watches Fusun during the family meal. All of the storylines and the reasons for doing things become inconsequential, in light of the weight of the things, their glow, their place in the environment where the encounter takes place. Why is the museum, this place where all the objects rest, a museum of “innocence”? Perhaps it may be that Pamuk is hinting at a world that transcends our experience - a setting that witnessed all our emotions, all of our tragedies, yet remains serene.

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